An Ottoman military band, Mehter
The Ottomans expanded their control from Anatolia to the Balkans in the middle of the 14th century. They entered European territory in 1352, and they defeated a Serbian army in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Ottoman pressure lessened in 1402 when the Mongol leader, Tamerlane, attacked Anatolia from the east, killed the Sultan, and sparked a civil war. When order was restored, the Ottomans renewed their westward progress. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II's forces overran Constantinople and killed the last Byzantine emperor.
The division of the Albanian-populated lands into small, quarreling fiefdoms ruled by independent feudal lords and tribal chiefs made them easy prey for the Ottoman armies. In 1385, the Albanian ruler of Durrës, Karl Thopia, appealed to the sultan for support against his rivals, the Balšić noble family. An Ottoman force quickly marched into Albania along the Via Egnatia and routed Balsha II in the Battle of Savra. Some of the Albanian Principalities soon started to become vassals of the Ottoman Empire after 1420. Gjirokastra became the county town of the Sanjak of Albania in 1420. and than Kruja was established as the center of Sanjak of Albania after Gjergj Arianiti defeated the Ottomans between 1431-1435. The Ottomans allowed Albanian clan chiefs to maintain their positions, rule and property, but they had to pay tribute, and sometimes send their sons to the Ottoman court as hostages, and provide the Ottoman army with auxiliary troops. However many Albanian clans and Principalities did not recognize the Ottoman authority and did not pay tribute.
The Albanians' resistance to the Ottomans in the 14th century and especially in the 15th century won them acclaim all over Europe. Gjon Kastrioti of Krujë was one of the Albanian clan leaders who submitted to Ottoman suzerainty in 1425. He was compelled to send his four sons to the Ottoman capital to be trained for military service. The youngest, George Kastrioti (1403–68), who would become the Albanians' national hero, captured the sultan's attention. Renamed Iskander when he converted to Islam, the young man participated in military expeditions to Asia Minor and Europe. When appointed to administer a Balkan district, Iskander became known as Skanderbeg. After Ottoman forces under Skanderbeg's command suffered defeat in a battle near Niš in present-day Serbia in 1443, Skanderbeg rushed to Krujë and tricked a Turkish pasha into surrendering the Albanian fortress. Skanderbeg then embraced Roman Catholicism and declared a holy war against the Turks.
On 1 March 1444, Albanian chieftains gathered in the cathedral of Lezhë with the prince of Montenegro and delegates from Venice and proclaimed Skanderbeg commander of the Albanian resistance. All of Albania accepted his leadership against the Ottomans, but local leaders kept control of their own districts. Under a red flag bearing Skanderbeg's heraldic emblem, an Albanian force of about 10,000-15.000 men held off Ottoman campaigns against their lands for twenty-four years. Three times the Albanians overcame sieges of Krujë. In 1450, the Albanians routed Sultan Murad II himself. Later, they repulsed attacks led by Sultan Mehmed II in 1466 and 1467. In 1461, Skanderbeg went to the aid of his suzerain, King Alfonso I of Naples, against the kings of Sicily. The government under Skanderbeg was unstable, however, and at times local Albanian rulers cooperated with the Ottomans against him.
With political and minor material support from the Kingdom of Naples and the Vatican, resistance to the Ottoman Empire continued for 35 years. Krujë fell to the Ottomans only in 1478, ten years after the death of Skanderbeg; Shkodër succumbed in 1479 after a failed siege in 1474 and a stronger siege in 1478 that ended with Venice ceding Shkodra to the Ottomans. The Venetians then evacuated Durrës, in 1501. The conquests triggered a great Albanian exodus to Venice and Italy, especially to the kingdom of Naples, as well as to Sicily, Romania and Egypt. Most of the Albanian refugees belonged to the Orthodox Church. The Albanians of Italy significantly influenced the Albanian national movement in future centuries, and Albanian Franciscan priests, most of whom were descended from émigrés to Italy, played a significant role in the preservation of Catholicism in Albania's northern regions.
Skanderbeg's long struggle to keep Albania free became highly significant to the Albanian people, as it strengthened their solidarity, made them more conscious of their national identity, and served later as a great source of inspiration in their struggle for national unity, freedom, and independence. The memory of the mid-15th century resistance under Skanderbeg continues to be important to Albanians, and his family's banner, bearing a black two-headed eagle on a red field, became the flag under which the Albanian national movement rallied centuries later.
After the death of Skenderbeg and the fall of Krujë, the Ottoman Empire gained control of the ethnic Albanian territories and made many changes.
The Albanian population gradually began to convert to Islam through the teachings of Bektashism, which offered considerable material advantages in Ottoman trade networks, bureaucracy and army. Many Albanians were recruited into the Janissary and Devşirme and later on through becoming Muslims they opepend their path for very successful military and political carriers. For example, 42 Grand Viziers were of Albanian origin. The most prominent Albanians during Ottoman rule were: George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, Ballaban Badera, Koca Davud Pasha, Hamza Kastrioti, Iljaz Hoxha, Mimar Sinan, Nezim Frakulla, Köprülü Mehmed Pasha, Ali Pasha, Edhem Pasha, Omer Vrioni, Patrona Halil, Haxhi Shehreti, Ali Pasha of Gucia, Ibrahim Pasha of Berat, Köprülü Fazıl Ahmed, Muhammad Ali of Egypt, Kara Mahmud Bushati, Kara Murad Pasha, Ahmet Kurt Pasha, Mustafa Bushati, Ibrahim Bushati, Sedefkar Mehmed Agha.
Albanians also played a crucial role during the Ottoman–Venetian War (1499–1503), Ottoman–Hungarian Wars and Ottoman–Habsburg wars before gaining Independence.
The weakening of Ottoman central authority and the timar system brought anarchy to the Albanian-populated lands. In the late 18th century, two Albanian centers of power emerged: Shkodër, under the Bushati family; and Ioannina, under Ali Pasha of Tepelenë. When it suited their goals, both places cooperated with the Sublime Porte, and when it was expedient to defy the central government, each acted independently.
The Bushati family dominated the Shkodër region through a network of alliances with various highland tribes. Kara Mahmud Bushati attempted to establish an autonomous principality and expand the lands under his control by playing off Austria and Russia against the Sublime Porte. In 1785, Kara Mahmud's forces attacked Montenegrin territory, and Austria offered to recognize him as the ruler of all Albania if he would ally himself with Vienna against the Sublime Porte. Seizing an opportunity, Kara Mahmud sent the sultan the heads of an Austrian delegation in 1788, and the Ottomans appointed him governor of Shkodër. When he attempted to wrest land from Montenegro in 1796, however, he was defeated and beheaded. Kara Mahmud's brother, Ibrahim Bushati, cooperated with the Sublime Porte until his death in 1810, but his successor, Mustafa Pasha Bushati, proved to be recalcitrant despite participation in Ottoman military campaigns against Greek revolutionaries and rebel pashas. He cooperated with the mountain tribes and brought a large area under his control.
Flag of the Bushatli dynasty (1796).
South of the Shkumbini River, the mostly peasant Tosks lived in compact villages under elected rulers. Some Tosks living in settlements high in the mountains maintained their independence and often escaped payment of taxes. The Tosks of the lowlands, however, were easy for the Ottoman authorities to control. The Albanian tribal system disappeared there, and the Ottomans imposed a system of military fiefs under which the sultan granted soldiers and cavalrymen temporary landholdings, or timars, in exchange for military service. By the 18th century, many military fiefs had effectively become the hereditary landholdings of economically and politically powerful families who squeezed wealth from their hard-strapped Christian and Muslim tenant farmers. The beys, like the clan chiefs of the northern mountains, became virtually independent rulers in their own provinces, had their own military contingents, and often waged war against each other to increase their landholdings and power. The Sublime Porte attempted to press a divide-and-rule policy to keep the local beys from uniting and posing a threat to Ottoman rule itself, but with little success.
Ottoman-Albanian relations worsened in the year 1826 during the reign of Mahmud II, he had instigated the notorious Auspicious Incident and the turmoil that followed caused the violent dissolution of the Janissary, Devşirme and the entire Balkan Muslim leadership in Rumelia causing a new wave of revolts and instability in the gradually weakening Ottoman Empire.
After crushing the Bushatis and Ali Pasha, the Sublime Porte introduced a series of reforms, known as the tanzimat, which were aimed at strengthening the empire by reining in fractious pashas. The timars officially became large individual landholdings, especially in the lowlands. In 1835, the Sublime Porte divided the Albanian-populated lands into the vilayets of Janina and Rumelia and dispatched officials from Constantinople to administer them. This provoked a series of revolts in 1843–1844, but they were suppressed by the Ottoman army.
After 1865, the central authorities redivided the Albanian lands between the vilayets of Scutari, Janina, and Monastir. The reforms angered the highland Albanian chieftains, who found their privileges reduced with no apparent compensation, and the authorities eventually abandoned efforts to control them. Ottoman troops crushed local rebellions in the lowlands, however, and conditions there remained bleak. The religious division of the northern Albanian tribes brought them into opposition. The Muslim northern Albanian tribes participated in the Ottoman campaigns against Christian Albanian tribes, such as in 1876 when they devastated the territory populated by the Mirditë Catholics. Large numbers of Tosks emigrated to join sizable Albanian émigré communities in Romania, Egypt, Bulgaria, Constantinople, southern Italy, and later the United States.